The Fight for the Women’s Franchise in England

The nineteenth century brought forward many activists in America who fought for equal rights, in-cluding the franchise, for women. At the same time, our sisters in England were similarly engaged in the struggle for equality. 

One of the leaders for the suffrage in England, Emmeline Goulden Pankhurst, founded the Women’s Franchise League, which advocated voting rights for both married and unmarried women. Her members were called “suffragettes” in 1906, a term coined by a journalist who wished to distinguish Pankhurst’s movement from others who were called “suffragists.” 

The demonstrations of the members of the WFL soon turned violent. The suffragettes broke windows, assaulted police officers, and then began to set fires. Some support for the cause then faded away, but the suffragettes persisted. Women were incarcerated and treated roughly by police. Mrs. Pankhurst herself was imprisoned and reported on the wretched conditions she suffered during the confinement. 

Incarcerated women went on hunger strikes and then were forcibly fed through tubes. Steel gags forced the mouth open. After a time, the government permitted the women to be released if their health was in jeopardy, but after their release, the police were allowed to hunt them down in a cat-and-mouse game and arrest them again. 

After 1910 and 1911 when Conciliation Bills, which included women’s suffrage, failed to pass the English Parliament, actions escalated into more violence. Arson became more frequent. Gunpowder was placed into mailboxes and then lit. In 1913 an incendiary device went off in a house being built for David Lloyd-George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. 

The British film “Suffragette,” which was re-leased in the United States in October, 2015, describes accurately the struggle for women’s right to vote in England. While the leading role of Maud Watts is fictional, the film depicts realistically the experiences of the suffragettes, most of them working women, underpaid, harassed, and socially stigmatized.

As in the case of Mrs. Watts, marriages were destroyed as husbands disowned their wives because of their activities and refused them visits to their children. Assaults from police officers and the horrors of incarceration are clearly depicted. The film is not easy to watch. 

The role of Emily Davison is real. This young women was killed when she stepped onto a race track and was trampled to death by the king’s horse in 1913. While the action was once determined to be suicide, later newsreels indicate that she was attempting to tie a scarf with the caption “Votes for Women” onto the horse’s bridle. 

In 1918 the bill “Representation for the People” granted voting rights to women over thirty years if they were members of the Local Government Register or married to a man who was a member of the LGR or was a property owner. The franchise would not be granted to all women twenty-one years and older until 1928. The film ends essentially with the death and funeral of Emily Davison, indicating that much work had yet to be done. 

Emmeline Pankhurst has now been recognized for her work. In 1999 TIME magazine acknowledged her as one of the most important persons of the century. Memorials and statues have been erected in her honor. Pankhurst, as portrayed by Meryl Streep, does not appear frequently in the film, but her influence is significant; she is clearly the leader, but she did suffer more in real life than the film indicates. 

The fight for women’s equality still goes on, but many women all over the world have participated in this magnificent struggle. The film “Suffragette” accurately documents what women endured to achieve the right to vote. Our rights, then, should be exer-cised faithfully, and our younger generation should come to know the sacrifices made to gain the franchise. This film helps us to remember. 

The author of this article, Margaret Watson, is a member of the WWHP Steering Committee and chair of the Speakers’ Bureau. 

How National Women’s History Month came into being 

The public celebration of women's history in this country began in 1978 as "Women's History Week" in Sonoma County, California. The week including March 8, International Women’s Day, was chosen. In 1981, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) co-sponsored a joint Congressional resolution proclaiming a national Women's History Week. In 1987, Congress expanded the celebration to a month, and March was declared Women's History Month.

Published Date: 
February 23, 2016